A common landscaping mistake is to install a wimpy plant in a challenging area. It may be a lovely plant, but that won't do you any good when it dies. Face it: difficult conditions call for tough plants, examples of which you'll find in the list below, headed by Culver's root.
In this article, I anticipate several different types of challenging conditions you may encounter in your landscaping efforts. In each case, I suggest a plant choice that will be up to the challenge. Follow the links supplied for in-depth information about the plants and conditions in question. My suggested plants range from ground covers and perennials to shrubs and trees.
1. Culver's Root My Solution to a Problem Area
I begin with a perennial that was a savior for me in the spot in my yard where it's the hardest to grow anything. This problem area in my landscaping is located along the street, meaning it's bombarded with pollution. I live in a snowy region, so road salt is an issue. On top of that, the soil there isn't very fertile, and its sieve-like consistency retains water poorly. Given that the spot is also flooded with sunlight all day long, this latter point can present a particularly serious problem.
Because it's a location facing multiple challenges, I like to use it to test plants for toughness. This is where plants go to die, so if I try a specimen there and it survives, I'm comfortable recommending it as "one tough plant." That's why Culver's root (see picture above) heads my list.
Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum) is a tall perennial flower (commonly 4 feet tall) suited to growing zones 4-7. It is known for its whorled leaves and the numerous flower spikes it puts out during the summer. Give it a moist soil and fertilizer, but my Culver's root did just fine in this challenging location without much of either. With a little more TLC, it would have grown taller, but I was just happy to have some color in this forsaken corner. If grown in ground rich in humus, it spreads by virtue of its rhizomes. In olden times, Culver's root was used medicinally as a purgative, despite the fact that it is toxic.
You may recognize a reference to another perennial in the botanical name for Culver's root. Veronicastrum is formed from Veronica and astrum. The latter is a suffix used in botanical nomenclature to indicate "false" (as in resembling X, while not being the real McCoy). Thus a Veronicastrum reminds people of a Veronica but isn't one. Another example of the -astrum suffix is found in Lamiastrum (i.e., a false Lamium); for example, Lamiastrum galeobdolon.
If it's a tree you need in an area plagued by street pollution, then familiarize yourself with Sunburst honey locust. Its bright yellow foliage in spring and fall will turn heads, and -- more importantly for those who wish to avoid messy trees -- the leaves are tiny enough that raking them when they fall isn't a major priority. For more choices, see my full article on pollution-tolerant trees.
Whether it's road salt or ocean salt that challenges your landscaping efforts, your best ally will be salt-tolerant plants. One of my favorites is winterberry, a shrub that is also a good plant for wet areas. Sure, this type of holly is a bit of a one-hit wonder, furnishing color in late fall but little interest for the rest of the year. But oh what a show it puts on when its red berries take center stage!
You're probably aware that there are acid-loving plants you can grow to address the problem of planting in ground that is "sour." But how does one address the opposite challenge? Well, there are also plants that perform well in alkaline soils. The ground cover, creeping thyme is one of them. I see this plant growing wild all over in the alkaline soils of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.
Excessive clay in the soil has been the demise of many a gardener but some plants will tolerate it. You should become acquainted with them if this is a problem in your landscaping. Bee balm is one of them and an easy perennial to grow. You may have to deal with powdery mildew, but I offer simple tips for that in my article.
We all know that dry conditions often spell problems for plants. And if you've ever foolishly tried to grow a full-sun plant in a shady area, then you're already fully aware of the challenges that shade can pose. But what do you get when you combine dry soil with shade? A double challenge, that's what. Thankfully, there are plants for dry shade that are tough enough to withstand the onslaught of this two-headed monster.
Hosta is one of the most popular choices. If you think this foliage plant is boring, then there's a good chance you haven't explored the world of hostas very thoroughly. As I detail in my article, hostas come in a number of sizes and textures, and for the color, you can choose from:
Is there a dry corner of your yard that is pounded by the sun all day long? Cactus may come to mind as an ideal plant for this mini-desert, but if you live far away from the American Southwest, perhaps you've ruled out cactus as an option. That would be unfortunate, since prickly pear could be just the answer you're seeking. This cactus is hardy all the way up to growing zone 4. It is both a drought-resistant and a deer-resistant plant, so its qualifications for the "tough plants" category are impeccable. A cactus-like plant widely grown in the North is another tough cookie: Yucca filamentosa.
Some plants don't play well with others. Black walnut tree is a notorious example, using allelopathy to gain an unfair advantage over the competition. Some plants won't grow under a black walnut, while others will. Jack-in-the-pulpit, a North American native, is one of the tough customers that will.
So far I've focused on areas that are challenging due to soil conditions. But we often encounter other factors, as well, that make our lives difficult when trying to landscape our yards. Have you ever tried building your garden on a slope? It's not easy if the grade is steep, is it? And if you just leave it alone, the result could be serious erosion. Grass has to be mowed, so that might not be a good choice on such challenging terrain. What you need is a tough ground cover, and creeping juniper is one of the best choices for a sunny slope (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris is an option for shady slopes but requires more water than does juniper).
Finally, planting trees and shrubs around a septic tank is always tricky, because you have to worry about the damage their root systems could do. It's better to stick to less robust plants; keep maintenance needs in mind, as well (you may not want to have to mess around in a septic-tank area excessively). The ornamental grasses always suggest themselves when low maintenance landscaping is a priority. Blue fescue is one of my favorites.
As you can see from the litany of challenges addressed above, there are surely enough problems inherent in the landscaping experience without creating more unnecessarily. Beginners will want to read my article on how not to landscape to ensure that they're not shooting themselves in the foot. If you remember the principle "First, do no harm" and commit yourself to learning more about plants as time permits, you'll eventually get the hang of it.